( ENSPIRE Feature ) Deepa Purushothaman Talks Leadership and Learned Lessons
ENSPIRE Contributor: Clarisa Crump
Deepa Purushothaman is a pioneer in leadership. She challenges and redefines the status quo of leadership by centering the needs and experiences of women of color. Being a senior partner at Deloitte for 20 years, Purushothaman helped women of color grow and step into spaces of inclusion and power. While at Deloitte, she became the managing partner of WIN, the company’s globally renowned Women’s Initiative. She became the first American Indian, and the youngest, woman to make a partner in the firm’s history.
After leaving Deloitte in 2020, Purushothaman co-founded nFormation, a membership-based community for professional Women of Color, offering brave, safe, new space and helping place and placing them in C-suite positions and on Boards. She is also a Women and Public Policy Program Leader in Practice at the Harvard Kennedy.
ENSPIRE caught up with Purushothaman to further inquire about her endeavors with helping women and her new company.
When you were a senior partner at Deloitte what was the most impactful lesson that you learned?
I am a truthteller.
When people ask me about difficult situations and finding my voice, I often think back to meeting my first big client as a new Partner. The client was a brash CTO who liked to drop the f-bomb and hated consultants — to say he was intimidating is an understatement.
I was not a technical person, so I was already worried about meeting him from a content standpoint. I prepared for weeks and I will never forget as I walked into his office for our meeting, he took one look at me, and said, “If I had a daughter, she would be older than you so what could you possibly have to tell me?”.
I took what I assume to be a visible gulp and gathered all the confidence I could muster and said, “I have some interesting information about how broken your organization is. And if you give me 30 minutes and I don’t tell you something you don’t already know, I will give you back the rest of our time together and never ask for another meeting.”
I had his attention.
We talked for almost two hours and he became one of my biggest buyers for over 2 years. In that interaction, and that moment, I learned that my leadership style is truth-telling, and it served me well. Because I was young and looked young, I could not lead with my experience or expertise. That would have been hard. I had to play the cards I was dealt, so to speak, and that meant using directness to my advantage.
It can be easy to get caught up in other people’s perceptions of you, but don’t let it consume you. You get to define what they walk away with. Often, it is in challenging situations we find our voice.
What are some things that you teach to women of color in terms of leadership?
Behind Corporate America’s veneer of inclusion, it has never really fostered true equity, especially for women of color. As “the first, the few, the only” I want to give us permission to question everything, and to define and redefine power in a way that suits us. This means figuring out for ourselves what makes us feel power-full, rather than using the playbook most of us have been handed growing up and in corporate spaces.”
Find the power of “me and the power of we.” You need to go down a path of finding your personal power and that involves rewriting a great deal of indoctrination. The “me” work. And, you need to find the power of “we,” a community and set of practices that help you bear witness, validate your experiences and push on structural change. You can not change structures on your own.
It’s a process of coming home to yourself, that helps you question your beliefs about success, and consciously choose what you shed, and what you carry forward.
Do you believe anyone can be a leader? If so, what do you feel is necessary to lead?
Yes. We have to start looking outside of the usual suspects for leadership and engage the question in a more personal way. We all have phenomenal leadership models in our life, even if that leadership didn’t come with an executive title or advanced degree. Maybe it’s a grandmother who taught you the value of caring and listening, a service-oriented teacher who is passionate about history, or your courage in overcoming a tremendous moment of adversity.
Once we can acknowledge and seek out leadership outside of the conventional ways we’ve been taught to recognize it, we can start to feel more resourced and inspired in embodying our own leadership qualities and potential.We need more and more examples of leadership so I want to see more women of color lead.
How does a professional woman of color become a member of nFormation?
Have an existing member nominate them, or go to https://www.n2formation.com/ and sign up for an interview.
Being in leadership positions yourself, can you offer any advice on how to grow into those positions?
The first thing to remember is that it won’t just look one way. For one individual, it may look like side-stepping corporate altogether and starting their own venture. For another, it may look like continuing to climb the ladder, while ensuring they’re making active choices about their time and energy and not compromising on core values. The game changer either way is making sure you have a sense of community, and some safe spaces where you can land, be vulnerable and feel fully seen.
Also, there is no such thing as balance. There is just drawing lines. A job will take as much as you let it. You need to go on vacation. You need to not set up calls after 8 pm if you are in charge. You need to not set up weekend calls. If you are in charge—you set the tone. And pick people to work with you enjoy if you can. That makes all the difference in the world.
Do you have any major goals for the company, nFormation, going towards the future?
The north star for nF has always been to listen to and amplify the voices and lived experiences of WOC professionals. We’ve already reached such remarkable milestones, in our research, partnerships, and member experience. The next frontier for us is board readiness—how do we get women of color onto the boards of publicly traded companies, and set them up for success in those seats?
As well as being a prominent leadership figure for both companies, Purushothaman is a published author. “The First, The Few, The Only” was published last year by HarperCollins and quickly rose to international acclaim. She also hosts TED Talks and has been featured in Time, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, PBS, and more. Her talks have nearly 3 million views from women of color worldwide who want to step into their leadership and power. A firm believer that education is power, Purushotham has acquired degrees from Wellesley College, Kennedy School, and the London School of Economics.
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